Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review: THE BURNING (1981)

I love FRIDAY THE 13TH and its sequels (yes, even the silly ones like A NEW BEGINNING and JASON TAKES MANHATTAN). I love MADMAN. I love SLEEPAWAY CAMP. But I have to admit - THE BURNING is the best "campers in peril" body count flick ever made. Period. And because of that, it stands as one of the best slasher movies ever made. Period.

I don't really know what it is about The Burning that makes it such a cult classic. During its initial release, the film didn't draw up much attention - most of this was due to be released a week after the very similar and highly anticipated FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II. Yet over the years, fans have seen its brilliance in the genre, and The Burning has enjoyed quite a little resurgence as a cult classic.

Pop-culture aficionados will probably recall The Burning as being the debuts of acclaimed producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein (who have released several Academy Award winning pictures), as well as actors Jason Alexander ("SEINFELD"), Fisher Stevens (SHORT CIRCUIT), Brian Backer (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH), and of course Holly Hunter (THE PIANO) in a "blink and you'll miss her!" role. The film was also co-written by Brad Grey, who you might recognize as the Chairman and Chief Executive of Paramount Pictures. And Peter Lawrence, a co-writer, went onto pen successful cult television series like "THUNDERCATS". Basically, The Burning got a lot of successful careers started.

The plot is straight and to-the-point, as with most body count flicks; a horrible crime from the past comes back to haunt the unsuspecting, sex-craved, careless youths of the present. In the case of The Burning, some kids at summer camp play a prank on their cruel camp caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David). This prank goes horribly wrong, resulting in extreme scarring, both physically and mentally, and over the course of 5 years in a hospital Cropsy is transformed into a monster. He heads back to his old camping grounds to get revenge, starting with Todd (Brian Matthews), one of the kids he blames for his disfigurement who is now a camp counselor himself.

While The Burning is undoubtedly known for its gore effects (created by none other than Tom Savini, who turned down Friday the 13th Part II for this job), but that is not the draw of the film. The draw is definitely the fact that The Burning is just a fun movie - its a perfect combination of suspense, horror gore, and teenage fun. There are scenes that show the campers splashing each other in a kayak race, shooting the bully with a pea-shooter, and playing pranks on each other. While these antics might become annoying with a less talented cast, The Burning works. It makes our potential victims likable, fun people we want to see live... not just slasher fodder like in most other movies of this kind.

The movie's villain, Cropsy, is also a large reason as to why the film works so well. Cropsy does not fall into the pits of forgettable slasher villains, but he stands out on his own. Imagine, if Jason had only appeared in one movie, would he be so memorable? Cropsy oddly comes off as a hybrid of Jason and Freddy Krueger - he's a burn victim out for revenge, but the people he's getting revenge on are teens attending a summer camp.

Cropsy lurks in the shadows and bushes throughout most of the film; carrying his big garden shears as blades and studying his prey before finally attacking. And when Cropsy attacks, its sudden and frightening - slashing, stabbing, and chopping all sorts of body parts. The movie's most famous scene involves a group of unsuspecting teens on a makeshift raft paddling toward a kayak... and someone very unfortunate is inside! The scene is shocking, unexpected, and brutal. I could only imagine audience reactions back in 1981.

But a villain is only as good as the hero they oppose. Here, that hero is Todd. Unlike most slasher films, the final showdown in man vs. monster, rather than woman vs. monster. In most cases, this would be a risky move, but in the case of The Burning, is the right move. It helps elevate the film to a sort of unexpected, unconventional slasher. As a character, Todd is a perfect hero. He is one of the ones responsible for what happened to Cropsy, but he is also remorseful for it. And at the end of the day, Todd would risk his life to save the younger campers he's looking after. It's upsetting that Brian Matthews career did not take off like the other cast-mates.

Other great characters include the Brooklyn-accented bully Glazer (Larry Joshua), the hot girl at camp Sally (Carrick Glenn), the temperamental Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), Todd's outdoorsy girlfriend Michelle (Leah Ayres), the nerdy and slightly creepy Alfred (Backer), and of course jokesters Dave (Alexander) and Woodstock (Stevens).

Basically, The Burning is a slasher film that I would recommend to any moviegoer looking for a good horror movie - whether they are fans of the genre or not. It has great, memorable gore and an excellent build of suspense. It has fun, enjoyable characters, a hero to root for, and an awesome villain. It started the careers of many familiar faces and names. And its atmosphere is just awesome. If you are standing in a video store contemplating between watching Friday the 13th or The Burning, go with Cropsy. You won't regret it!

Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Just Before Dawn (1981)
Sleepaway Camp (1983)

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